Ask anyone who has been to Antarctica about the part that was most difficult. The likely answer will be Drake passage. It is a hurdle to be crossed by everyone wanting to reach Antarctica by ship. So, what is it about? Read further.
About Drake passage
It is a body of water between Cape Horn in South America and South Shetland Islands in Antarctica. It is about 800km wide and it takes about 40 hours to cross the passage. The warm waters of Pacific and Atlantic Oceans meet the cold waters of Southern ocean. This creates a “cocktail” effect resulting in rough waters. There is no significant land in this area that can reduce the impact of the waves. This makes Drake passage one of the roughest sea travel in the world.
As our ship departed Ushuaia in the evening, it started moving in the Beagle channel. During briefing, Captain mentioned that conditions were good in Drake passage but still the ship would “roll”. The major side effect of rolling is sea sickness. I was not sure whether to take medications or not as I had no previous experience on sea travel. Since the medications work well before the onset of sea sickness symptoms, I decided to play safe and took the tablets.
Sometime in the night, the ship crossed from Beagle Channel to Drake passage. I was sleeping but still could feel the movement of ship as my body rolled on the bed!! It was indeed a new experience.
Our’s was a small ship with just 90 (+40 crew) onboard and obviously the effect of waves was more. It was scary to watch the ship rolling over but the crew was least bothered. So, how does the rolling feel like? Imagine you are on a flight and there is a turbulence where the seat belt sign is on and air hostess stops serving food. Multiply it by few times and set the duration of turbulence for 40 hours (that’s what it takes to cross Drake passage). That is the Drake passage experience. It is hard to walk straight. Eating food becomes a difficult task due to movement. Sea sickness takes over few people. This was evident by the reduction in number of people during breakfast, lunch and dinner. Even taking shower is challenging as you need to use one hand for support.
Activities in ship
Lot of things in ship are designed to handle this rolling. Hand rails are placed everywhere for support, the seats and tables are fixed to ground, the door have a hook to keep it open and even toilets have support. Water and liquid items are not served in dining room during that period. The major injuries during rolling are resulting from when fingers get caught in doors and falling on the floor. We had to be very careful on that part.
Few things made our lives better during that time. One was the lecture sessions. Sessions were held explaining history, geology, animal and bird life of Antarctica. We could also read the book that was available in the ship. The movies shown about polar regions also kept us engaged. The crew also utilised the time to conduct emergency drill, learning to wear life jacket and selecting our rubber boots for landings. In addition, the sea sickness medication kept us drowsy most of the time. It was very common scene to see people falling asleep while hearing the lecture.
We saw many birds during the crossing of Drake passage. Petrels and Albatrosses followed the ship throughout the journey in Drake Passage. We also spotted humpback whales few times during journey. It was really fun to observe their behaviour.
End of Drake Passage makes the beginning of Antarctica and the first ice filled islands of Antarctica (South Shetland islands) made their appearance. We forgot all our troubles till then and jumped with excitement. The sea in Antarctica is usually calm with very light waves. That makes rest of the trip easy.
The return trip was definitely rough. We had to face a storm for 4-6 hours at the end of the journey. It was a roller coaster ride with waves higher than 5 meters splashing the deck. There were couple of injuries when people lost balance and fell down but none of them serious. Announcements were made to stay in the rooms and to avoid walking as much as possible. It was indeed an experience to remember. We were relieved when we reached the safe waters of Cape Horn.
Drake passage was just another experience in my Antarctica trip. Before the trip, I was wondering how to pass time during the 40 hour ship journey. But at the end, I never felt bored even for a single minute in the whole journey.
Some cruises now offer packages that avoid traveling in drake passage. They offer flights between South America to Antarctica and then travel around Antarctica in the ship. It is much more expensive than ship journey. I feel that with increase in number of tourists every year, this option might become more prevalent in future.